Jonathan Kennett: My story as told to Elisabeth Easther

Jonathan Kennett has been working to progress the pushbike agenda for more than three decades and wrote his first guidebook, Classic NZ Mountain Bike Rides, in 1991. With more than 25 titles to his name, Kennett’s latest book, The Bikes We Built, is an illustrated history of New Zealand’s cycle industry told through 60 bikes. As well as being an author, Kennett organises cycling events, was a key player in the evolution of Ngā Haerenga, The NZ Cycle Trails and currently works for Waka Kotahi as an active transport planner.

Everybody cycled in Christchurch in the 1970s, although in my family of seven there weren’t seven bikes so we had to learn to ride on whatever bike we could. When we were about 4, me and my twin brother Simon perched my mother’s bike beside the backsteps of our house. We’d launch off from the steps, jumping on the pedals and coasting across the lawn as far as we could before crashing. We did this time and time again until we learnt to turn those huge pedals and keep moving. Once we’d mastered that, we headed to the streets, biking further afield which led to a lot of adventures.

On one trip to the local park, we’d left our bikes against some large oak trees to play on the swings and slides but, when we went to leave, we were attacked by magpies who wouldn’t let us anywhere near the bikes. I couldn’t go home without mum’s bike, that’s for sure, so we went to the local dairy and asked for cardboard boxes to make body armour, so we could creep across the park and get our bikes back.

Our father was a probation officer, and promotions often meant transfers. We were in Christchurch for nine years, Invercargill and Dunedin for three years each, until we moved to Wellington when I was 16. At intermediate school in Invercargill everyone had to do woodwork, metalwork, sewing and cooking. They were quite clever, and we were told we had to get our “drivers licence” to operate the sewing machines. Seeing them as mechanical made them more enticing, and because I needed a tracksuit, once I got my “licence” I ran up a tracksuit and I won the school prize for sewing.

I left school at the end of sixth form and was working on a building site. Two days before university started, I was playing chess with the boss at lunchtime and he suggested I enrol for some papers. I ended up with a science degree – I also studied history, maths and philosophy – but the biggest thing I did at university was join the tramping, canoeing and caving clubs.

Me and my mate Johnny Mulheron were painting houses over the summer holidays, and we came up with a plan to go cycling in the Himalayas, once we’d finished university. We bought canvas, buckles and tape, and some plywood for backing and we made up our own panniers using a friend’s industrial sewing machine, then we flew straight to Kathmandu.

The plan was to cycle from Nepal to Tibet, but civil unrest made it difficult to get permits and the Chinese government said we’d have to pay a government guide to follow us in a four-wheel drive. While waiting for that permit, we met a Sherpa, Chimmi Gurung, who was really into mountain biking, and he took us riding on the outskirts of Kathmandu. We got on well and he asked if we wanted to ride to Everest Basecamp with him. That required special permits, so we went to see the national park ranger in his Kathmandu office. It turned out he’d studied in New Zealand and had married a Kiwi. As a result, he was favourable towards New Zealanders. Mostly he wanted to be sure we could look after ourselves, and when we told him we had climbing experience, he was satisfied. But, in exchange for permits, he asked us to write a pamphlet on altitude sickness on our return. We all had difficulty breathing above 5000 metres and the sleep apnoea was horrible, but Chimmi suffered the most. Just short of basecamp he said he had to go down or he’d die. He started descending, while me and Johnny made our way up, and became the first people to mountain bike up to Everest basecamp. We had a quick look around then started descending. When you’re ascending you can only gain altitude at 300m a day, but you can descend as fast as you like and the faster you go, the more you feel like superman, as your body goes from being deprived of oxygen to being full of it. When we caught up to Chimmi we felt amazing and when we got back to Kathmandu, the first thing we did was write the pamphlet.

For a while I wanted to be a sheep farmer, then I wanted to invent things, or be a glacier guide, but when I came home broke from overseas, I got a job working at Bivouac, an outdoors store in Wellington. Mountain biking was really taking off then, and because people knew I was into it they’d come in and ask me where to go riding. At the same time, I noticed the shop only sold guidebooks for tramping and mountaineering – none for mountain biking. So rather than give directions to people one at a time, by drawing little maps on the back of till receipts, I decided to write a guidebook. My older brother Paul was publishing a mountain bike magazine at the time, so he was keen to help, as was his friend, Patrick Morgan – now a leading cycle advocate – who was studying journalism. Together the three of us wrote that first guidebook. Once published it was on the New Zealand bestseller list for eight weeks and the publisher asked for another book, and it took off from there.

Every country develops its own culture, for all sorts of different reasons. In China, the gender balance for riding bikes is almost perfectly balanced, but in India, just next door, six times as many men ride bikes as women. In New Zealand our car-driving culture is really strong, and that is partly due to significant changes that followed World War II. Previously, huge numbers of New Zealanders rode bikes and used public transport, but after the war there was a real drive to build infrastructure for cars. We knocked down houses, pulled out tram lines and built more lanes and car parks. This was supposed to relieve congestion, but it just led to more cars which provided the apparent need to build more roads, which led to even more cars and more congestion, till we ended up with the congestion we have in our cities today, and the low numbers of people walking and cycling. Thankfully, a lot of cycling infrastructure has been built over the last 10 years, but it’s not enough yet. Research shows that three quarters of urban New Zealanders would cycle if it was safe to do so.

When I was a project manager for The NZ Cycle Trail, the most common question from overseas cyclists was, “how do we cycle from the top of New Zealand to the bottom?” My answer kept changing as more cycle trails were built, and less and less road riding was needed. Eventually, the ride started looking so good I decided to ride it myself. But I didn’t want to do it on my own. As a teenager, I’d cycled from Wellington to Cape Reinga and I found it quite a lonely experience, so in 2015 I put it on Facebook that I was going to ride 3000km from Cape Reinga to Bluff in 2016 and 260 people said they wanted to join me. Tour Aotearoa follows as many of the Great Rides as possible and connects with backcountry roads and cycle paths. That first year 93 per cent of riders finished within four weeks, probably because it attracted quite hardcase people, so the quality was pretty high. Now riders take longer to reach Bluff, with riders experiencing the country in a way that isn’t possible using any other means of transport. One real gift I’ve gained from that adventure is a sense of topophilia. I’ve never come to the end of a journey feeling so much love for a place and its people as I did when I got to the end of Tour Aotearoa.

The Bikes We Built – A journey through New Zealand made bicycles

Take a ride through the history of 60 New Zealand-made bicycles from 1869 to the present day. From the velocipede to the penny farthing, to the Raleigh Chopper and the BMX, discover how Kiwis have reinvented the wheel over the past 150 years, and how millions of bicycles were manufactured right here in New Zealand. Unearthing secrets from factories, garages, archives and museums, this is a celebration of Kiwi ingenuity, passion and determination.

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